Clearing my Shelves

The summer holiday has arrived and it’s time to refresh, relax and (in our case) catch a breath and finish the process of moving in to a new place. One activity that will be very much part of this routine will be the removal of various books from my shelves.

As the years pass and more books accumulate, shelving space is increasingly at a premium. It makes sense, then, to try to pass on to others (either through charity shops or online sales) the books I don’t intend to read or rely upon again.

There’s something cathartic about doing this, deciding what will stay and what will go. Exercising control over what belongs on my shelves feels like an enjoyable assertion of my own free will: I’m not going to be kept in thrall by those books I don’t/didn’t enjoy is the thought, and I can follow the thought with decisive action.

In this post I’ve tried to force myself to reflect pretty candidly on the different reasons why the books I’m selling no longer seem to belong on my shelves. Here below is a picture of the books I currently have available for purchase (as displayed on a shelf I’ve allocated to them in the garage). They cover a whole range of subjects, from ancient philosophy to land law to psychology to an educator’s memoir. Below that is a summary of the various reasons why they’re for sale.


a) Books which served a purpose and are not needed anymore: the primary examples here are the law books – mostly textbooks. In some cases they’re now quite out of date, in a field where new textbooks are published each year, and in most cases they’re available pretty cheap. I do retain some books from my period of legal studies – like Treitel’s classic treatise on the Law of Contract, and a textbook on company law (a nice study aide when I wrote a successful mini-dissertation on minority shareholder remedies), but I don’t envisage an imminent need for detailed reading material on criminal, EU, or tort law. Those, then, can go.

b) Books that excited me at the time but that don’t anymore: in this category I’d include some of the philosophy books – Bernard Williams’ Problems of the Self (a collection of essays) and Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Arlie Hochschild’s Commercialisation of Intimate Life, a sociological book with some interesting observations, also falls into this category, as do some history books, for example Mark Bevir’s The Logic of the History of Ideas and RG Collingwood’s classic study, The Idea of History. In each case, these books (or at least parts of them) were enjoyable when I first read them, but I can’t imagine returning to them again anytime soon. Partly, this is because my interest in philosophy itself has dwindled over the years: my reading tastes now focus more on biography and various types of history. Why? I’m not exactly sure but there has certainly been a more general shift from the abstract to the concrete in my choice of reading material over the years (philosophy and theology out; politics, economic history and biography in).

c) Books I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t get into: this is perhaps the biggest single category of book on the shelf. Of course, there are probably a lot of books like this on any avid reader’s shelves – and many such books remain, in fact, on my own ‘not for sale’ shelves, mainly because they could be useful as works of reference, or because I might want to give them a second chance. On this shelf, my recently purchased copy of John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom, a sort of primer of ancient philosophy, which just doesn’t flow, is an example of the type; so too Charles Taylor’s large book on Hegel (Taylor picks fascinating topics in his books – many of which I own – but his prose style can be long-winded and trying); so too David Graeber’s book Debt (which held me for the first 10 or so pages before I found myself getting too frustrated with the assumptions he was making). Graeber is almost the opposite of Taylor in terms of prose style: he’s overly punchy. Others? Edward Said’s book on Humanism and Democratic Criticism was okay, but I have better books of his in my possession (and worse: On Late Style was a particularly disappointing read); John Burrow’s Crisis of Reason: European thought 1848-1914 addresses a fascinating topic but does so in a very stodgy way; Terry Eagleton is usually very readable but Trouble with Strangers: a study of ethics is among the least enjoyable of his books – its argument patchy, its prose not as luminous as that of his other books, and ethics is hardly his special field anyway; as for Galen Strawson’s Real Materialism (a collection of philosophy essays), I found both the writing and the subject matter more or less impenetrable.

d) a subset of c): Classics books that didn’t work for me. Here some examples are Neville Morley’s Antiquity and Modernity (a great topic, but the approach of the book didn’t speak to me at all), Irene de Jong’s Narrators and Focalizers (very dry) and Jonathan Hall’s Hellenicity (an interesting argument about the development of Hellenic identity, but a dense read: too dense for me at any rate). William Harris’ book on the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity was another case of an interesting topic that wasn’t a particularly absorbing read (Harris’ other books, which unfortunately are very expensive, read really well, by contrast). Garth Fowden’s Egyptian Hermes – on Hermes the thrice-great – is the definitive treatment of its topic, but again it’s too dense for my tastes and it didn’t feel like an effort was made to bring the subject alive.

e) books it makes commercial sense to sell – I would be quite happy to keep hold of my copy of the collection of essays on Gender and the Body in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Maria Wyke, but if I can make £35 for it (and in advertising it for that price, I am the cheapest would-be seller online) I’ll gladly take the money (the book was purchased years back for £7).

f) books whose wisdom I no longer need: Mike Carot’s book of poker tells and Hwang’s book on pot limit omaha fall into this bracket. Read into that what you will… Also Terence Irwin’s book on Plato’s Ethics is surplus to requirements because this subject is fully covered in a different book I own by the same author (The Development of Ethics, volume 1). A further example here is the collection of essays on animal ethics: I’ve been a fully signed up vegetarian for a number of years now and no longer need to be convinced of the ethical case for vegetarianism.

g) Books I reviewed (somewhat ruefully): I spent far too long wondering about how to review two books on the shelf for journals (a book about the theology of Henri de Lubac and one about gender and ancient religion). These books hold particular memories. Influencing my approach to both reviews was the comment of Mary Beard that ‘you shouldn’t write anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face’. Well, maybe I’ve grown bolder over the years but I’d certainly review both books quite differently now if I were to do so again. In one of the books, for instance, there were issues with dryness, unshapely sentences, jargon and the ‘so what?’ question (i.e. what does this matter?). None of this was mentioned in the review. With the collection of essays, there was an attempt to tie the essays together under a single banner which didn’t really work (the essays covered different topics in quite distinct ways and bore only the loosest of relations to one another) This is a common complaint of many reviewers of such volumes but it’s one my review didn’t manage to touch upon. I suppose I feel now that life is short and that these are the sorts of things (among others) that should just be said without hesitation if they’re what a reviewer feels – and let the chips fall where they may.

h) Duplicates: I already possess JA Mangan’s excellent book on the Games Ethic and Imperialism – an exploration of the place of sport in British education in the 19th century – so this copy is for sale.

So that’s a rough – and admittedly candid, though hopefully not too curmudgeonly – summary of the reasons these books are for sale. I hope I didn’t put you off making a purchase!

Consuetudo loquendi est in motu

‘Our manner of speech is in flux’: these are the words of Varro, the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist, as mediated through my slightly loose translation. Varro wasn’t thinking of individuals’ use of language when he wrote this – though, no doubt, his is a point that applies over the course of the life of an individual, just as it does over the course of a language’s life. Instead, he was participating in a highly self-aware Roman discussion about the developing use of the Latin language.

For many people who know some Latin today, it is easy enough to imagine the language as an impressively logical system – of clearly defined grammatical tables, of distinct word endings, and (more generally) of order and rational control. This image of the Latin language is in significant measure a product of the habits of teaching and learning favoured by 19th century educators: hefty Victorian grammatical textbooks are just one tangible artefact of their influence.

What I hadn’t really been aware of before this week was how the Romans themselves imposed considerable (conscious) control over the nature and structure of their language. This comes through in a range of first century BC discussions – in authors like Varro, Cicero and indeed Julius Caesar – of which I’m now aware. And it reflects an older Roman (and Greek) tradition of thinking about language use.

My education in this area has come about through reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Rome’s Cultural Revolution, a text I’ve had on my shelf for several years but which I’ve only just found the time to get into.


Romans of the first century BC were sometimes acutely conscious of linguistic differences in the way Latin was spoken (and written). Just as modern English speakers can effortlessly spot the differences between regional accents, national accents, formal and informal speech (etc), so too ancient Latin users would have spotted similar differences. But what were the boundaries of correct usage in amongst the (perfectly natural) linguistic variety that could be observed?

This is a question, Wallace-Hadrill suggests, that assumes an importance only with Rome’s – and Latin’s – imperial extension in the first century BC: ‘hand in hand with an insistence that others use one’s language is the establishment of authoritative standards by which to lay down what that language is’.

For Cicero, writing in his Brutus on the history of oratory, there was a pure use of Latin which all good orators – and indeed all good speakers of the language – should aim to practise. There was a time, Cicero thinks, when all Romans would speak this pure form of the language as a matter of custom. So what changed? A flood of people of diverse origins, he explains, has entered Rome. They have tainted the language, polluting its proper use!


Cicero’s explanation is strikingly reductive (and prejudiced!) – but it is interesting that he seems to assume that ‘proper’ Latin was only ever spoken at Rome (and that non-Romans were never in command of pure Latinitas). Wallace-Hadrill makes short work of Cicero’s argument, pointing out the myth of ‘purism’ while noting also that ‘purism’ can only be imposed on a language by the imposition of an external authority (e.g. a grammarian!).

Varro, unlike Cicero, was a realist about linguistic change, just as he was about other changes of custom. Old practices can give way to new ones in clothing, building and furniture. Traditional usage in these and other areas has been replaced. The same is true for words. Consuetudo – custom, then (whether linguistic or otherwise), can itself be remade: it is not forever set in stone, as a Cicero might have preferred.

By the end of the first century BC, the power to define consuetudo, when it came to language, seems to have begun to move away from influential patrician figures like Cicero and Varro, who had previously been the key voices in its constitution. From this point, upper class influence on correct Latin usage was no longer to have quite the weight it once did: instead the foremost authorities when it came to defining what was ‘correct’ Latin would soon be professional grammarians. This is an area about which I have more reading to do.

Sewers and Octopodes

In these difficult times, I’ve found there are worse ways to maintain spirits than trying to remember fun moments in the classroom over the past term. It’s disarming to think that teachers could by now have had their last lessons in person with the pupils they’ve taught during the current academic year. Well, below, I’ve tried to record a fun portion of one of my lessons, in which discussion ranged widely – across food and drink, sea creatures, grain supply and Roman sanitation.

My year 7 class and I had been talking briefly about Roman food and drink, and about the grain-heavy diets that many ordinary Romans had. The class had recently learned about garum – Roman fish sauce – and about the Roman fondness for wine, olive oil and various other foods and tipples. We’d had a little help along the way from an amusing episode of the series, ‘What the Romans did for us’, by Adam Hart-Davis.

Images illustrating the preparation of garum (Roman fish sauce), which seems often to have been added to desserts!

‘But what about delicacies?’ someone asked. Good question – so we started a discussion about the sorts of meats and seafoods that ancient Romans might (more occasionally) have eaten.

‘Octopus?’ suggested one class member. Probably not for most people, most of the time, I answered! But I do have a question for you about the octopus. ‘What is its plural?’

‘Octopi!’ This was the answer most of the group felt pretty confident with – especially since they’ve done a good job of learning their 2nd declension Latin noun endings (which have a -us ending in the nominative singular and an -i ending in the nominative plural). But a small smattering of class members tentatively suggested ‘octopuses’: octopi wasn’t the only pick.

An octopus – aka polypus – on a Roman mosaic

Well, I asked, what if neither of those options is strictly accurate? Accurate, that is, if we treat ‘octopus’ as an ancient word. Confused looks.

Good, I said: this can be a little topic for you to do some research on later. Is there an additional possible plural of ‘octopus’ – and what might it be, and why?

The answer, jubilantly reported by some of the pupils in their next lesson, is that because of the Greek (not Latin) roots of octopus, the plural might best be given as octopodes.

They’d done well. Octopus does indeed have Greek roots – but, so it appears, the word doesn’t actually have an ancient provenance. Greeks certainly knew about the cephalopod we call the octopus, but the name they used for this animal was polypous (i.e. many footed creature). It was this word that Romans borrowed to give the Latin word polypus…and this is the word they used to designate the creature we know as the octopus.

It was only much later – in the 16th century. according to our best information – that the word octopus itself starts to appear for the first time, and it appears then in the English language. A nice discussion of this development is available here.

A depiction of a Roman grain transporter ship being loaded

From our rather inconclusive discussion of the octopus (how should you talk about more than one of them?) we turned to start talking about a separate topic relating to Roman diet: the Roman grain supply. This was crucial for Rome’s development and stature as a city during the high period of its empire. In order to feed the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, emperors would import huge quantities of grain, all the way across the Mediterranean, from North Africa, for ordinary people to eat. It was given out as a hand-out.

Some of the class were shocked by this revelation. ‘Free food. Really?!’ Not exactly free, of course, but to the Roman plebs, it must have felt like it. This in turn set off a conversation about how modern governments don’t really do this sort of thing – and maybe it would be helpful if they did?

I asked the class to reflect on another key area of Roman urban life that they might find surprising: hygiene. Walking into the city of Rome in the 1st or 2nd century AD, I asked, what – perhaps more than anything else – might have imposed itself on your senses. One pupil saw immediately where I was going with this question: ‘the smell’, she said.

I remember reading a passage somewhere in one of Keith Hopkins’ books where he really insists on this point. The smell on the streets of the ancient city would have been ghastly, overpowering, horrific. City dwellers in the developed world today have no point of easy comparison.

But this, I told the class, brings us to another topic you may wish to do some research about: the Roman sanitation and sewage system (particularly the Cloaca Maxima). Despite the toxic stench of their city, the Romans possessed a remarkably advanced sanitation system, featuring underground tunnels and drainage. Without this, the city would surely have smelt a whole lot worse.

A modern view of the interior of the ancient Roman sanitation system, the Cloaca Maxima

I’ve noticed over the course of my time as a teacher that pupils in the 21st century classroom tend to assume that the story of historical development has been a pretty linear one of relentless progress: a sort of whiggish optimism, in other words, is pretty widespread. The history of Roman sanitation, of aqueducts and the provision of running water to urban centres, and of the Roman genius for engineering more generally, is a nice counterpoint here.

In these areas, Romans produced technologies that were not (in Europe, at least) to be matched for many centuries (over a milennium, in fact). With the demise of the Roman empire, some of the technology went out of use altogether, without being replaced by anything superior. Far from it. I’m sure my pupils now have a sense of this, even if they’re not exactly clear (as I myself am not) which word to choose if they want to talk about more than one octopus. Sometimes not even teachers have all the answers.

St Augustine on ancient Troy

Last week was Classics week at school (pictures on the departmental twitter feed here). It was an opportunity to put on a range of events – talks, trips, a quiz, a baking competition etc. – with the aim of building a sense of what the study of the ancient world is and can be about, and why it’s exciting. The theme for the week (proposed by one of my colleagues in the Classics department) was the Trojan War.

This made sense as it’s a theme that dovetails neatly with the special exhibition currently showing at the British Museum on just this topic. And the theme worked well: we were very happy to welcome Dr Simon Pulleyn from UCL to talk to us about some aspects of the depiction of Helen in Homer’s Iliad, as well as about some of the linguistic questions which arise through study of the poem. Over the course of the week, and as with the British Museum exhibits, there was a chance to range widely – looking not just at the poetry of Homer, but at the way the Trojan war has been thought about and understood more broadly through time and space.

I myself started the week with a Monday morning assembly touching on a few of the contexts in which the Iliad has had an important impact. These formed the basis of 3 further talks I gave over the course of the week (possible overkill, I concede, but I couldn’t help myself…).

I looked first at the reception of Homer’s gods in ancient Greece, where the description of his poem as ‘Bible of the Greeks’ is not wholly misleading; at the use made of Homer by the Roman poet Virgil, particularly in connection with his depiction of the emperor Augustus in the Aeneid; at the use of the Iliad in the context of psychological therapy for Vietnam war veterans, as outlined in the brilliant book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay; and at some of the recent retellings of Homer from female perspectives, in books like Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls. There is in fact an ancient pedigree for this last sort of writing: we see it most clearly on display in Euripides’ fifth century BC play, The Trojan Women.

By the end of the week, like everyone else, I was ready for a rest. But I’ve been waiting to find a chance to write up a few thoughts about the subject matter of my final talk of the week: this concerned the way St Augustine, in his magnum opus The City of God, writes about the Trojan war, just a few years after the sack of Rome by Visigothic invaders, in the early 5th century AD.

Antonio Rodriguez (1636-91), St Augustine

Augustine wrote at a time when stories of Troy, as presented (in particular) by Homer and Virgil, were coming to be viewed in a new and different light. The Christianisation of the Roman west was by now well underway (it had been more than a century since the accession of the emperor Constantine), and Christian thinkers had for decades now been aiming to recalibrate popular understandings of the shape and significance of Roman – and cosmic – history. Writing the Trojan war out of history (and out of Roman religion) – or at least writing it off –  was part of this process.

For first century BC Roman writers like Virgil and the historian Livy, stories of the Trojan war could occupy a proud place of precedence in their tellings of the origins of Roman history. But this way of situating and explaining the development of Roman history, and indeed world history (in relation to the Homeric tales of Troy) was something that made a good deal less sense for writers inspired by Christianity.

Christian writers tended to see the history of Rome, and indeed the history of the cosmos, in an altogether different light. They wanted to tell historical stories that followed a trajectory featuring not Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, but instead tales of the Bible – of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and King David.

Christian history writing, as the great historian of historiography Arnaldo Momigliano emphasises, is profoundly influenced in its most fundamental conceptions by Jewish history writing. The foremost influence over the early Christian historiographical tradition, in fact, was the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus.


Augustine himself was not a historian. But in his City of God – a work of theology – he presents passages of prolonged reflection and argument about historical topics. And, like Christian historians, Augustine is fundamentally uninterested in sustaining older linear narratives of Roman history. He is interested rather in vindicating and championing new, Christian ways of seeing and understanding the past.

His treatment of the Trojan war – to which he turns his attention in book 3 – is a case in point. For Augustine, Homeric accounts of the war at Troy do not count as credible historical records. He is particularly unimpressed by Homer’s Trojan gods, most notably Apollo and Poseidon. Poseidon, he notes, was simultaneously credited with building up the city walls of Troy, and – then – with joining the Greek assault on the city.

Poseidon punishes Trojan bad faith (the bad faith in question being the failure of Laomedon, Priam’s father, to pay the sea god for his help in constructing the original city walls of Troy, as outlined at Il. 21.441f.). Meanwhile, Augustine wonders wryly whether it’s more dangerous to believe in such a god or to let him down. He also wonders why – if Troy’s gods are indeed Rome’s gods, as Roman tradition had maintained – a Trojan act of bad faith was punishable in this way, while the perjurious acts of unscrupulous Roman senators apparently were not.

Augustine mocks the idea that the Homeric gods could have had any serious issue with the adultery of Paris (when he took Helen, Menelaus’ wife). The gods themselves were serial adulterers, he notes. He also dismisses the idea that the leading men of the Roman imperial period could reliably trace their ancestries back to Troy, and indeed to the gods themselves (‘Caesar’, he notes, was ‘convinced that Venus was his ancestress’).

Here he takes issue with the subtle perspective of the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist Varro, who supplies Augustine with much of his raw material in the City of God. In Varro’s eyes, a prominent Roman who constructed his identity with reference to divine Trojan ancestors was making a positive move. It was positive, he thought, because it might make him more energetic in action, more bold in undertaking noble deeds, and more secure within himself. The dangers of hubris, apparently, did not loom large in Varro’s view of things!


But, back to Augustine, whose major query about the Homeric (and Roman) gods was this: why should these gods have been so incapable of protecting Troy, yet so capable of protecting Rome (at least, that is, during its years of imperial greatness)? And what was missing from Troy that Rome had come to possess, so that the gods might favour one city, but not the other? Here, in Augustine’s view, was a key and unanswerable question – and it is a question whose unanswerability (he thought) ought really to undermine in its very foundations the traditional, and rather naive, Roman religious worldview.

Augustine has a final point about Troy. He notes that the Roman general Fimbria, in the early 1st century BC, brutally razed a rebuilt latter-day Troy, completely destroying the city and ordering the slaughter of all its inhabitants. But wait: was this not the city that had given the Romans their gods? Why, then, should a Roman general destroy a city whose gods (which were also his own) ought to have been protecting it? The flawed logic of Roman theology is, for Augustine, exposed here all too clearly.

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A depiction of Gaius Flavius Fimbria, whose exploits are first recorded by Livy

In Augustine, the tragic fate of ancient Troy, and the stories told by Homer, are not subjected to thoroughgoing scrutiny – historical, literary, archaeological – in the ways characteristic of modern scholarship. Augustine’s exploration is motivated rather by a desire to dislodge a theological perspective whose weakness he feels confident in identifying. He does not accept that ‘the gods’ acted as protectors either of Troy or of Rome in its imperial heyday.

Even in his doubts, however, Augustine remains very much a theologian: he does not wish to suggest that no god can act as the protector and champion of a people through history. Indeed, his contention is that the rise of Rome, and the city’s greatness, are things that have in fact happened under the oversight of the Christian God, rather than the gods of Troy. Given the recent sacking of Rome, this might seem (and might have seemed also in the 5th century) a quite remarkable point of view for a Christian theologian to advance.

Featured image (top) is Destruction, from Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire.

Favourite Reads of 2019 (2)

(Continued from previous)

5 Josephine Kamm, How Different from Us: a Biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale


A fascinating read about the lives of two Victorian educators, Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale. I discuss some of the highlights of the book in another post here.

4 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity


Another book about which I’ve written already (here): Nussbaum, as the title of the book intimates, wants to redirect the focus of education in the humanities back onto the cultivation of humanity itself (and she does so with reference to some of the key arguments in ancient philosophy). The book was written in the 90s but its arguments felt relevant – perhaps even urgent – at a time when the intellectual tenor and human sensitivity of our public discourse isn’t exactly the best it could be.

3 Isobel Hurst, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: the Feminine of Homer


This is a bit of a cheat – as, so far, I’ve only read the first 2 chapters. However, it’s already given me some clear glimpses of a whole area of history and research re: the classical world (19th century women’s reception) that I’ve not thought much about before. It’s also beautifully written.

2 Martial, Epigrams 


I hadn’t previously appreciated just how racy, funny and exuberant Martial’s epigrams are. My (inaccurate) memory of studying a selection of them many years ago was that they offered little more than a pretty unremarkable window into everyday Roman social reality. That selection must have omitted a lot of good stuff – and what sort of ‘social reality’ is it that we get in Martial, anyway? I’m looking forward to reading some of the Epigrams with students over the course of the upcoming term.

1 Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis


Another beautifully written book (which I blogged about earlier this year here). I’d first tried to read this novel a couple of years ago, but couldn’t get into it then. This year, however, it stood out as the novel that (for various reasons) it made sense to read to my mother at her bedside during her final illness. She enjoyed it immensely – as did I, and its story (and the memory of reading it) will always hold a profound meaning for me.

Favourite reads of 2019 (1)

As it’s the end of the year, a number of people have started to list their favourite reads of the past 12 months. I thought I’d do the same – mainly because I’ve read some great books this year – though with the caveat that none of these books was actually published in 2019… I will have to do better at staying up to date by this time next year.
10. Christopher Stray, Living Word: WHD Rouse and the Crisis of the Classics in Edwardian England
A fascinating portrayal of the life and career of an Edwardian classicist and headmaster (of the Perse school, Cambridge), it’s a quick read. For me, there was also the interesting connection that Rouse, who pioneered the Direct Method of teaching Latin, worked earlier in his career at Bedford school (where I worked myself until this past term).
9. Russell Jacoby, The Last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe
For anyone interested in academic life and campus culture changes (and disputes… I want to avoid the word ‘wars’…) in recent decades, this should prove a thought-provoking read. Jacoby’s is a sane, interesting voice in a debate where all too often the only arguments in town are either from the reactionary corner or the extreme left.
8. Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners & civilisation in early modern England
I’ve tried one of Keith Thomas’ books – Religion and the Decline of Magic – before, but couldn’t get into it. This was a different story altogether. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the moral world of everyday social interactions and ideas of civility (and politeness) in 18th century England. Thomas was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in this year’s new year’s honours list.
7. Horace, Satires 1 (w commentary by Emily Gowers)
I first read Horace as a teenager and it’s been great spending some time with him again in recent months. In the Satires, I like his social commentary and his complex literary persona, but also his humanity. Emily Gowers’ commentary is brilliant and added hugely to my understanding of the text.
6. Noel Annan, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics, Geniuses
Another book about the history of university education – and one perhaps worth reading for its clipped, rhythmical prose alone. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes revealing the eccentric behaviour of dons over the past two centuries. My favourite anecdotes concerned the Victorian scientist William Buckland and his son (who, as a child, collected exotic animals in his college rooms). On one occasion, the dean of the college is reported to have admonished him: ‘Mr Buckland, I hear you keep a bear in college; well, either you or the bear must go’.

Questions, Answers and the Teaching of History

What is it, above all, that a good teacher of history is aiming to do? Is it mainly a question of successfully imparting correct or relevant information? Most, I imagine, would say that more – much more – is at stake than this. Is it, then, primarily about developing in pupils a capacity to see patterns of cause and effect, thus enabling them to isolate the important influence or set of factors which lies behind a significant event or occurrence?

What, though, about the interrogation of source materials and the development of a sense of the shape of the surviving documentary record: is it a focus on this, and the development of a keen awareness of its nature, scope and deficiencies – together with an ability to probe and analyse the evidence – that should constitute the key focus of a good teacher’s activity? The chief aim of the teacher, from this point of view, might be to produce pupils with a keen eye for detail, and an ability to shoot down overly-ambitious theories which claim too much on the basis of what’s (not) there.

Maybe the good teacher will emphasise also that reconstruction is the historian’s primary goal. If so, then their main focus is likely be on developing pupils’ capacity to make excellent use of the medium of prose; on knowing what it is to communicate details about the past attractively and cogently, certainly; but with a sense also, perhaps, that a big aim of historical writing might be to perform something like a necromancy. For the historian as necromancer, successful writing will somehow manage to bring back into being for readers things that have died and disappeared. (Why, after all, should this be an aim only of historical novelists?).

But perhaps the truth is that history teaching that really hits the mark, and indeed much of the best historical writing too, will contain something of all of these elements.

I’ve been thinking about these issues over the last couple of days chiefly because I’ve been re-reading the autobiography of RG Collingwood. Collingwood was a renowned philosopher and Roman historian. His autobiography is a subtle and amiable account of its author’s experiences of learning, teaching and writing in Oxford in the first half of the twentieth century. Collingwood was fully aware of the idiosyncratic character of many of his philosophical views, as seen in contrast with prevailing trends among his philosophical and Oxford contemporaries. This only adds to the book’s interest.


One area in which Collingwood’s views became well-known was his philosophy of history – an area of philosophical enquiry neglected by many of his colleagues.* And Collingwood is particularly interesting, I think, on the topic of historical method, on what it is that historians should try to do when they approach the past.

For Collingwood, it is all a matter of asking the right questions. In short, the idea is that dealing well with historical evidence – Collingwood uses the example of an archaeological dig – is all about refining the questions one poses in relation to it. At a dig, you might begin with a question like ‘was there a Flavian occupation on this site?’ That question can then be divided into sub-questions, like: ‘are these Flavian sherds and coins mere strays, or were they deposited in the period to which they belong?’ And so on.


In Collingwood’s discussion, the intellectual activity of the historian in formulating problems and solutions is crucial: the historian must pose good questions, and refine them and answer them well, while making due allowance for any problems presented by the evidence, at the same time as they offer their argument.

What I particularly like about this way of seeing the business of historical research is that the onus is very much on the historian to generate their own avenues of approach, their own web of questions (and – hopefully good – answers). It is a way, that is, to cultivate subjectivity and a habit of free enquiry, informed by one’s own growing sense of how to approach the material.

This, I think, is what successful history teaching can be about. Pupils should find that they have been invited into a world of free-spirited debate and enquiry, in which individuals can begin to form and articulate their own ideas about matters of interest and substance. The centrality of posing, refining and answering one’s own questions in that process matters.

At the same time, Collingwood’s approach isn’t in the slightest complacently presentist, in the sense that it requires the historian actually to engage with the thoughts and ideas of past people seriously. The historian should try to see these ideas in context and make sense of them in their own right. It simply won’t do, he thinks, to dismiss past thoughts on the basis of contemporary opinion or prejudice and (thus) to rule out their importance for understanding past action and behaviour.

For Collingwood, then, doing history is a fundamentally dialogical activity. He sees the process of posing and refining questions in relation to the past as an important ongoing activity, not only for the writing of good history, but also for the ongoing development of the historian as a rational being. This is a point of principle I find myself happy to agree with.

*Many, though not all. Collingwood acknowledges the influence of the philosopher TH Green in this area. He mentions too how many of Green’s pupils – including politicians such as Asquith and the social reformer and historian Arnold Toynbee – made a point of applying the ideas they had learned from their university philosophy tutor in the context of their future careers. Green was known to many as a Hegelian, though Collingwood does not call him this. Collingwood does however describe the widespread opposition to Green’s work among Oxford philosophers of his own time (‘Hegelian’ ideas were, for the most part, successfully repelled at Oxford).  He also indicates his own more sympathetic view of Green and some of his disciples. These descriptions feel measured and patient, and perhaps overly so. I suspect Collingwood is culpable of characteristically English understatement at times.

The State is Like a Ship: on Plato’s Critique of the Athenian Democracy

In Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, in the context of a damning appraisal of the way the democracy at Athens works, Socrates compares the Athenian state to a ship. The owner of the ship, he says, is big and strong – but he is hard of hearing, shortsighted and not much of a navigator. The ship’s crew are in persistent disarray. They recklessly gorge themselves on the ship’s resources, while disagreeing with one another about who should be in charge on board, with each sailor believing he should be the captain (despite having neither experience nor training). Being the captain, the sailors maintain, requires no special skill (Gk. techne).

In this analogy, the citizen population of Athens are the owners of the ship. In Plato’s candid assessment, they are politically powerful but lacking in governmental acumen and intellectual ability. With them in charge, the Athenian ship is not going to cut a clear, sensible or efficient path.

The crew of the ship, meanwhile, are the disputatious demagogues and politicians who hold sway in Athens’ political assembly, each vying for influence and power over their fellow citizens.

Plato wants his fellow Athenians to undertake a thoroughgoing revaluation of the way things on board work. Rather than looking to the ship’s owner, or to themselves, he thinks the sailors on board the Athenian ship should look instead to a marginal, currently powerless figure whose quiet presence on board is regrettably overlooked: this figure he calls the ‘true navigator’. This true navigator is a person of great learning, wisdom and moral fibre: a philosopher.

A bust of Plato

My doctoral supervisor once told me of how she had been campaigning to try to get philosophers onto many of the various university decision-taking panels and boards she had contact with. Decisions rely on philosophical judgments: even if philosophers present on decision-making panels weren’t themselves making such judgments, might they nonetheless be able to advise those who were about philosophical issues and questions which arose in the course of a given set of deliberations?

I don’t know if this argument ever gained any traction but it is a good example of how – in our society too – philosophers’ voices are usually pretty marginal to the way things in the arena of practical affairs proceed.* Indeed, we even use the word ‘philosophical’ in everyday speech to describe people who have a calm attitude in the face of disappointment: in common parlance and the popular imagination, then, being ‘philosophical’ is certainly not something you openly do when successfully pulling the levers of worldly power.

Plato’s fellow Athenians would also have been surprised by his suggestion that philosophers, of all people (and whether they could lay claim to being true philosophers or not), are the best placed group of people to run a city-state. Philosophers at Athens, by Plato’s own admission, were not the most popular of individuals. In the estimation of the majority of Athens’ ordinary citizen population, he himself suggests, philosophers served no self-evidently useful purpose.

On one level, this is easy enough to understand: philosophers in ancient Athens tended to earn their livings by presiding over the higher education of a select group: the wealthy young men of the city. An education in philosophy was thus an education in a form of high culture. If most people found themselves able to make do without it, just how valuable to them could it be?**

Raphael’s famous depiction of philosophy in action at Athens. Depicted in the centre are Plato and Aristotle. Not all Athenians had Plato’s high view of the capacity of philosophy to have a positive influence on public life.

Plato doesn’t offer anything like the sort of sociological explanation for most ordinary Athenians’ remoteness from philosophy that I have just presented. Instead, he offers a moralistic explanation. In the Republic, philosophers are marginal figures in Athens simply because most people don’t approach them in the right spirit.

Philosophers are like doctors of the soul, Plato says (Rep. 489b), using a further analogy. The ‘sick’ man should have the wherewithal to go to the door of these doctors: it’s certainly not incumbent on the doctors to go around canvassing for their patients! What ordinary Athenians ought to do, Plato thinks, is to recognise their own dire need of good politicians – they are sick, after all – and to respond accordingly (by knocking on the doors of the philosophers in their midst).

I can almost find in this passage a humorous patrician hauteur (the hauteur is clearly there; the humour just possibly). The idea is that the less well-educated ought simply to recognise their need for intellectual instruction from the neighbours they perceive as effete and unworldly and then take steps to address it. This is an idea that is certainly of a piece with the picture sketched in the analogy to the ship: there the sailors need to acknowledge their own reckless and grasping behaviour if they are ever to stand a chance of benefiting from the wisdom of the navigator on board.

The analogy of the ship thus forms part of Plato’s broader argument, but it encapsulates many of his key points on politics in general – on the state of Athenian society, on the inadequacy of democracy as a form of government, and on the nature of the alterations to it that he would like to see. To what extent might these assessments, particularly in the form in which they are outlined in the analogy of the ship, have been convincing to his fellow Athenians?

A very brief answer here might be that, if they had cared to reflect on it, Plato’s analogy would likely have seemed a rather loaded one. Ancient ships would indeed have had just one captain – but democracy in ancient Athens plainly didn’t have just one officially recognised leadership figure, even if a figure like Pericles might emerge periodically as a particularly important political influencer. The fact that modern representative democracies do have officially recognised overall leadership figures – whether e.g. presidents or prime ministers – represents just one clear point of contrast with democracy at Athens.

The analogy of the ship arguably allows Plato to make his argument that only very few people should be able to control the state just a bit more effectively. He manages to insinuate that Athenian ships – a large number of which would have been involved in their navy, a much celebrated force which provided the city with its political and military strength – function so effectively precisely by using a non-democratic (and very hierarchical) model. Leading figures in the Athenian army and navy were not selected by lot for their posts (and yet they – mostly – performed their roles to the satisfaction of their fellow citizens, while presiding over a flourishing institution). This was exceptional in Athens: most public positions involved selection by lot.

A replica Athenian trireme, the key ship in the Athenian navy

Many Athenians would not, we can guess, have shared Plato’s damning assessment of the limited capacities of the owner of the ship, or the sailors on board, in his analogy. And as I have suggested, by Plato’s own admission they would have baulked at the idea that highly-skilled philosophers were the right people to have in charge of their political affairs.

This is not to dismiss tout court the potential of Plato’s analogy to appeal to his readers. Equally, it seems unlikely to me that in offering his criticisms of the workings of Athens’ democracy, Plato was mounting a serious attempt to convert all of his fellow citizens to his point of view.***

*At least, that is, on a surface level. The ideas and/or influence of philosophers, in one form or another, often lie hidden and unacknowledged within the moral reasoning people employ.

**One group of teachers – the sophists – had a short and effective answer to this question: it will enable those who learn it to argue well and make convincing points in public meetings of the democratic assembly. Plato himself regarded this as charlatanism: doing philosophy, for him, was emphatically not about learning how to make popular arguments.

***This post was written to accompany an earlier post on Plato’s political philosophy: Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat: from Plato to Popper via Arginusae.

Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat, from Plato to Popper via Arginusae

Some heavy charges were laid against Plato’s political philosophy in the twentieth century. In the influential view of Karl Popper,* Plato’s conception of the ideal city-state in the Republic represents a totalitarian vision, an intellectual antecedent to the abhorrent totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

A major element of the totalitarianism Popper identifies in Plato is that he thinks political power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, chosen few (whose task, among other things, is to ensure the wellbeing of everyone else). The general population is offered no alternative to this specially groomed group of rulers, who are chosen not by popular vote but by selection on the basis of their natural characteristics, intellectual abilities and personal virtues.

Popper criticises Plato also for the unity his rulers aim to instil in the city-state. The rulers are required to ensure that all members of the city can enjoy a good life. To do this, they must use propaganda: this is necessary, Plato thinks, if citizens are going to accept that what is good for them as individuals is the same thing as what is good for the city as a whole. In a functional city-state, Plato maintains, everyone will be motivated to live and work as individuals toward the good and unity of their city. By doing so – and only by doing so, will they be able to realise their own personal happiness. The job of the city-state’s rulers (who are concerned with the happiness of everyone) is to maintain the conditions in which these aims can be met.

For Popper, Plato’s is a nightmarish vision. Its principal defect, he suggests, is that Plato just doesn’t take seriously enough people’s individual interests and concerns: he seems to be uninterested in personal autonomy as a requisite feature of the good city. Instead, he is happy for his citizens to be propagandised for purportedly benign purposes, and he wants them to align their individual interests with those of a given political unit and its rulers. If the disastrous totalitarian experiments of twentieth century history teach us anything, Popper proposes, it is that this is a kind of political philosophy that leads in a very dangerous direction and cannot be endorsed.

Karl Popper, who argued against the totalitarian elements he identified in Plato’s political philosophy

Popper wants to distinguish, however, between the philosophy of Plato and that of Socrates – his teacher and the star character in Plato’s dialogues. This is difficult, as we only really have access to Plato’s views insofar as they are voiced by Socrates himself in the dialogues. But, for Popper (and indeed for many scholarly experts on Plato), we meet different Socrateses in different places in Plato’s dialogues: amongst these texts, we sometimes gain good access to what the historical Socrates himself thought and said; sometimes we gain access instead only to what Plato himself thinks.

In short, Popper blames what he identifies as the totalitarian elements in Plato’s dialogues on Plato himself, seeing those parts of the Republic in which Plato articulates them (using the voice of Socrates to do so) as a betrayal of the true thought of the historical Socrates. On this view, it is Plato – not Socrates – who is the totalitarian enemy of individual autonomy and freedom and critic of democracy, and (in Popper’s phrase) of ‘the open society’.

I do not share Popper’s confidence that the historical Socrates can be so straightforwardly excluded from the picture here. It doesn’t take an excess of imagination to see a clear fit between the political ideas which the figure of Socrates articulates in Plato’s Republic and some of the more significant moments we know about from the life of the historical Socrates. I want to point to just one, by way of example – not only for what it reveals about Socrates himself, but for what it reveals about a central problem that has often confronted democracy as a political form, from its earliest appearance in ancient Athens right up to its (quite different) instantiations in the present day.

A bust of Socrates

In the aftermath of the naval conflict between Athens and its rival city-state Sparta at the Battle of Arginusae in the year 406 BC, controversy had ensued.** Although the Athenians had successfully defended themselves in the conflict, some of their generals had elected to press ahead to try to destroy some more Spartan ships, rather than to rescue some floundering fellow Athenians whose ships had been sunk. The water-bound Athenians unfortunately died as a consequence of this decision. When news of this reached Athens, many citizens were outraged. They wanted the death penalty for the generals and one of them – Callixenus – proposed a well-supported motion to this effect.

Socrates, who happened to be acting as an administrative official, chosen by lot to serve the Athenian council (one of the prytaneis), at the time this motion was tabled, attempted to block it, refusing to allow it to be put to vote in the assembly. Xenophon, who records this story, writes that Socrates stated that he wasn’t prepared to allow the motion on the basis that it was illegal: it didn’t matter that a majority of citizens seemed intent on voting for it.

An alternative form of the motion was then tabled and voted through: rather than being tried as a group, the generals would each be tried as individuals. This in turn was overturned: Callixenus’ original motion, with Socrates no longer serving as one of the prytaneis and thus unable to block it, was passed.

Lived experience of this episode likely provided the historical Socrates with troubling proof of an obviously imperfect feature of the Athenian democracy: without much difficulty, a majority had managed to exert itself over and against the rule of law. Democracy itself, arguably, had turned authoritarian. Not only this, but in subsequent years, a good number of the Athenians who had supported Callixenus’ motion came to regret doing so: sometimes, as a democrat, you may find yourself regretting what you voted for.

Plato’s political philosophy in the Republic offers a critique of the whole idea of democracy.*** What Socrates’ experience of the Arginusae debacle offers, in my view, is a good indication as to why the historical Socrates himself may have shared (or come to share) the sort of criticism of democracy that Plato places on his lips in the text. Popper’s scepticism about this should, I think, be doubted.

A depiction of Plato and his Academy, from a Roman mosaic

Plato’s vision of a good society in the Republic can be criticised in numerous ways and from many angles, especially for the totalitarian ideas it commends. Of course it is important that this vision took shape against the background of lived experience in a democratic society. To its tremendous credit, this was a society that was free-thinking and tolerant enough of free speech to allow dissenting views such as Plato’s, which questioned its very political foundations, to be aired.

Equally, however, the Athens of Socrates and Plato must be seen as a society always under threat. This threat was not just external in nature – from enemies like the Persians, or from the Athenians’ not always very willing allies. The threat to Athens’ democracy could also be internal: it might come from would-be tyrants who lurked in the wings, or from its own intellectual critics – like Plato.

But also, at times, as the Arginusae episode demonstrates, the threat to democracy (insofar as democratic governance must be distinguished from mob-rule, and insofar as the integrity of democratic institutions and the rule of law must form part of a cardinal set of values in any democratic setting) could come also from the authoritarian behaviour of large swathes of its own citizen population.

While it may be tempting to label Plato a straight-down-the-line totalitarian on account of some of the political ideas that are expressed in the Republic, it is worth remembering that it was Plato’s hero Socrates who stood against the authoritarian abuse of Athens’ democratic powers by its own citizens in the aftermath of Arginusae.

*As outlined in The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 1.

**A neat overview of this episode is presented here.

***In a subsequent post, I am going to take a look at one significant passage that forms part of this critique: the famous analogy of the ship.

Wilde’s Inferno: Reading Dante in Reading Gaol

I have just finished reading the 200 or so pages of the recently (well, fairly recently) published Penguin edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and other prison writings (mostly letters), edited by Colm Toibin. It has been a harrowing, serious and affecting read, which though at times a little repetitive, is nonetheless punctuated by plenty of purple passages of searingly beautiful prose.

De Profundis accounts for the main body of the book’s text. It takes the form of a letter addressed to Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Bosie is upbraided throughout the letter for his callousness, frivolity and duplicity over the course of his relationship with Wilde, who himself emerges as a deeply forlorn and tragic figure from his own extended and damning description of Bosie’s behaviour.

The received wisdom is that the letter cannot be read as an accurate account of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie (since it contains, apparently, too many petty, foolish and untrue accusations). What is remarkable about the letter, Toibin thinks, and what makes it (in his estimation) Wilde’s ‘greatest piece of prose-writing’, is the ‘change it marks in Wilde’s imaginative procedures’: the ‘high priest of flippancy and mocking laughter has set himself suddenly and shockingly against shallowness’.


I am far too unread in Wilde to be able to concur with confidence that the serious tone of De Profundis is indeed entirely out of keeping with the tone he had adopted in his previous writing. It is certainly true, though, that De Profundis repeatedly takes aim at shallowness: Wilde at one point produces the memorable aphorism that shallowness is ‘the supreme vice’.

Something that struck me as I read what Wilde had communicated to the outside world during his two year stay in prison was the extent to which he knew he could find in reading books a source of deep consolation while confined in his cell. For his first few months in prison, however, reading had not been possible. This must only have served to sharpen his sense of how empty life could be – and must have been – without it (particularly, of course, within the confines of a small cell and over a course of hard labour).

In a letter sent after 13 months of imprisonment, Wilde wrote to the Home Secretary (no less) that one of the chief causes of the mental suffering he had experienced in jail had been the lack of ‘suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man’. The ‘physical privations’ of jail, he continued, ‘are as nothing compared to the entire privation of literature to one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life’.

A subsequent letter, written 4 months later, indicates that Wilde had, as a result of his initial letter, been granted access to some new books in the now somewhat replenished prison library (he had complained to the Home Secretary of his dissatisfaction with the existing stock). What he liked to do when reading the books that gave him satisfaction, he wrote to a friend, was to take notes from them, copying lines and phrases from poets that spoke to him.

So what sort of reading might a master literary craftsman turn to when at his lowest ebb? Wilde had been able to exert an influence here: when writing to his contacts outside jail, he had given an indication of the sort of book he wished to have accessible to him in the prison library.

Of all the things he chose, the book that stands out before all others as the most important source of inspiration for the incarcerated Wilde is Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Indeed the very title of Wilde’s De Profundis itself contains a possible allusion to this text. In the Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy), Dante had depicted himself going down to the depths of hell, accompanied by his guide, the Roman epic poet Virgil. Wilde implies that this is a journey he too (like Virgil and Dante) has had to make.

Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno

In what ways does Dante speak to Wilde? Part of the answer here is that he speaks to him through the medium of epic poetry, which – by its nature – is a serious, weighty and grand form of writing. What kind of consolation can such writing offer? Without wishing to rely too heavily on my own pretty sketchy knowledge of The Divine Comedy, and indeed of Wilde, I want briefly to hazard an answer to these questions, as I think Wilde gives a profound illustration of how epic poetry, written in the classical tradition, can speak to the heart of the individual.

As I have mentioned, it seems to me that in De Profundis, Wilde seems very clearly to invite his reader(s) to see that he has taken the same sort of route as that which Dante himself follows in the Divine Comedy. He has passed through the depths of personal hell. And, with Dante somehow guiding him, he has managed to find the route upward toward a kind of spiritual awareness. This awareness has consisted in a dramatic and apparently newfound understanding of the reality and personhood of God through Christ (in a way roughly analogous to Dante’s experience in paradise in the final section of the Divine Comedy).

The first mention of Dante in De Profundis introduces a paradox. Wilde refers to how Walter Pater’s (then recent) book Renaissance had posed a problem to his pre-existing understanding of Dante. Pater mentions in his book that Dante encounters in a very lowly situation in the inferno (i.e. hell) those who wilfully live in sadness. To dwell sustainedly on your own misery, he sees, is to wallow in the darkest pits of the damned. And yet, notes Wilde, this Dante who condemns self-pity is the same Dante who says that ‘sorrow remarries us to God’. How could it make sense, in this light, for Dante to be so harsh to those ‘enamoured of melancholy’ in hell, Wilde wonders.

Walter Pater, the literary critic, whose writing provided Wilde with food for thought while he was in prison

Wilde does not proceed to offer a neat resolution to this apparent quandary, but subsequent sections of his letter reveal that he has found a way to see through it. For Wilde, as for Dante, in order to find God one must find him through a spiritual journey which passes through the darkest and most harrowing depths of sorrow. In the phrase of St John of the Cross (who was influenced, like Dante, by the theology of St Thomas Aquinas), one must experience the dark night of the soul. Dante depicts this in terms of a physical journey, through hell initially, via purgatory, through (finally) to paradise. But Dante’s text can equally be read as an allegory: it is a story of the stages a human soul must move through in order to establish a relationship with the divine.

Wilde has come to feel (under the special influence of Dante in particular) that sorrow is not the final word in truly lived human experience (even in jail), even if it is a vitally important component of it. Like Dante, he thinks that it does however deserve sustained attention – and he accordingly offers an arresting, melodic and sombre meditation on the subject in which Sorrow, capitalised, acquires a dramatic and hypostasised personality all of its own.

‘Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask…there is no truth comparable to Sorrow. There are times when Sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of Sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain…more than this, there is about Sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality…for the secret life is suffering, It is what is hidden behind everything’, he writes.

Wilde’s heartfelt depiction of the nature of Sorrow, I think, can be seen as a reflection of all that is most harrowing not only in Wilde’s own personal and spiritual experience (but in Dante’s Inferno too – the ‘city of weeping’, of ‘eternal sorrow’, of the ‘lost people’).*

Wilde proceeds from here in what might seem (particularly if Dante’s likely influence is not appreciated) a surprising direction. Having linked Sorrow to Truth, he then links it to Beauty and to Love, before alluding briefly to the problem of evil (or, more precisely, to the problem of pain).

He had previously thought, he says, that suffering proved that God did not love man, and that wherever there is sorrow, the whole face of creation has been marred. ‘Now it seems to me’, he says, ‘that Love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world…if the worlds have indeed been built out of Sorrow, it has been by the hands of Love, because in no other way could the Soul of man for whom the worlds are made reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but Pain for the beautiful Soul’.

A few lines later, he reveals that these insights have helped to generate in him a ‘new life, as through my love of Dante I sometimes like to call it’.

I do not think I share Wilde’s sense that by developing a sufficiently tragic and romantic sensibility, one can begin to come to terms with the problem of evil. I do share his view, however, that by acquiring such a sensibility, one can begin to approach in new light the figure of Christ – as he does at length in several rich, lyrical and beautifully rendered paragraphs over the subsequent pages of De Profundis. Rather than summarise these pages here, I will simply recommend them as wonderful (and provocative) reading.

Wilde’s encounter with the figure of Christ, as outlined in those pages, is facilitated not only by Renan’s Vie de Jésus (among several other significant texts). It also relies heavily, I think, on his engagement with Dante. It is not just that Wilde quotes directly from Dante’s description of his journey through purgatory to add colour to his description of Christ (who, he says, saw that the soul of each person should have the ‘manner of a child who laughs and weeps and behaves childishly’).**

It is also that, in order to arrive at his contemplation of the personality of Christ in De Profundis, Wilde has first had to confront and move through the depths of his despair and degradation – both in terms of the humbling vicissitudes of his relationship with Bosie, but also in terms of his experience of desperation and sorrow while in jail. This sense of somehow moving from a personal nadir of sorrow and deep anguish, all the way through to a dramatic personal and spiritual communion with God through Christ, establishes Wilde on precisely the same trajectory as that represented by Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.

But there is a further connection. In the Divine Comedy, as has already been mentioned, Dante encounters Virgil, who becomes his guide through his journey to hell (and beyond). In a similar way, I think, Wilde – despite not writing within the same tradition of epic poetry – manifestly considers Dante to be his foremost literary and spiritual guide, as he moves through the darkest depths of despair, and (somehow) beyond.

Dante, accompanied by Beatrice, ascending to the sphere of the sun in Paradise, as depicted by Giovanni Di Paolo

I mentioned in a previous post, which considered the dynamics of the interaction between Aeneas and Dido in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, that one important feature of epic poetry is that it can help to nurture in attentive readers a sensitive, thoughtful – and, above all, humane – approach to human dialogue and human relationships. Wilde’s reading of Dante reveals a further area in which epic poetry in the classical tradition can be seen to have something profound to say to its readers, even centuries after the event of its composition: in the context of spiritual awakening.

*Inferno 3:1-3.

**Purgatorio 16: 86-7, trans. C. Sisson.


Talking through Dido: the failure of forthright tenderness in Aeneid 6

When Aeneas catches sight of the ghost of Dido, his abandoned lover and the former Queen of Carthage, amongst a group of shades he passes on his journey into the depths of the underworld, he stops to try to talk to her. The conversation does not get off the ground. Hearing Aeneas speak, Dido shows no emotion in her facial features, which are left ‘unmoved, like hard rock’. This is in spite of the fact that we know ‘her mind is burning’. When Aeneas finishes speaking, she avoids all eye contact, staring at the ground, before retreating back into the shadows without saying a word.

Aeneas’ attempt to start a conversation with Dido is a striking failure, not least because Dido’s ghostly reticence stands in stark contrast with the outspoken, though increasingly troubled figure whom Aeneas has known in her earthly life. When he last saw her, she was in a state of furious indignation and deep melancholy at his impending departure from her kingdom. She had certainly had things to say to him previously. Why are things different now?

One reading of her response (or lack of response) to Aeneas in the underworld is that, in light of the devastation he has caused her (devastation which seems not entirely to have subsided), she really has nothing to say to him anymore. Coming face to face with him here perhaps gives Dido an opportunity to show Aeneas that she is now in a new state of mind, detached from the emotions which brought about her premature death. She is showing him that she has moved on from her state of earthly passion; that she has cried more than her share of tears for this man; and that she has perhaps found some peace of sorts in the company of the shade of her prematurely deceased husband Sychaeus (whose presence she seems to retreat toward).

Despite being plausible enough as far as it goes, for me this reading of the meeting of Aeneas and Dido in the underworld misses much of the richness and subtlety of Virgil’s presentation of their encounter. I think we can read more deeply into the dynamics of their responses to one another by looking carefully at the tone Aeneas adopts in his address of Dido and focussing on this as the likely cause of her response to him. Dido’s body language and withdrawal from Aeneas may best be seen, I think, as an implicit rejection – above all – of his tone, and the buoyant self-confidence and forthright and assertive, yet seemingly well-intentioned tenderness, it conveys.

If this is correct, one can perhaps imagine Aeneas’ words not only passing literally through Dido’s ghost, failing to register a physical impact on a phantasmagorical entity now bereft of its mortal existence. One can also imagine him talking through her, in the sense of missing the mark: missing the mark, that is, insofar as he adopts an emotional and rhetorical pose which falls well short of the kind of delicate sensitivity which an appropriate handling of this interaction would have involved.

Aeneas has entered the underworld to try to find his dead father Anchises. His motive is not simply that of a devoted son. He wishes to benefit from his father’s wisdom and foresight. He will rely on these to strengthen him as he strives to find a new homeland for his band of refugee Trojan warriors. His quest for a new home is not simply about finding appropriate land to settle. It is shown by Virgil to link profoundly to the story of the foundation and future greatness of Rome, not least insofar as Aeneas – despite being a Trojan hero – is made to embody many of the paradigmatic virtues of first century BC Augustan Rome.

Aeneas in the Underworld, by Rubens

Part of Aeneas’ problem is that he is so deeply caught up with the serious business of being the hero, leader of men and all-round man of action and adventure that he is. Virgil tells us that Aeneas addresses Dido with ‘sweet love’ in his voice (6.455), but just how much sweetness is this Odyssean swashbuckler capable of?

‘infelix Dido’ (‘unhappy/unlucky Dido’), he begins. This is a phrase which echoes other passages in the Aeneid, but it doesn’t obviously stand out for its sweetness, nor does it speak volumes for Aeneas’ capacity for sensitivity. Dido may indeed be unhappy, though why mention it – especially given that he himself is right at the root of this unhappiness?

He proceeds to ask two questions. The first aims to clarify whether Dido did indeed meet her death with a sword. The second asks if he himself had been the cause of her suicide. Aeneas immediately confronts Dido, then, with two of the most traumatic details of her existence. And, what’s more, he asks with a self-interested tone. Was Aeneas, by any chance, on her mind as Dido experienced her deepest moments of desperation?

One can understand Aeneas’ curiosity, perhaps, but why does he need to know this as a matter of urgency? One might even suggest that it is more than a bit cumbersome and unthinking of him to ask the question at all. He is rather like the person who, although he may have well-meaning concerns for an individual on his mind, just can’t help leaping into a conversation by voicing these concerns directly and straightaway, quite without regard for the emotional turbulence that doing so may cause the other party.

Aeneas continues by protesting that he didn’t want to leave Dido when he did (‘invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi’: ‘I left your shores unwillingly, O queen’). This is not exactly new information. He has already told Dido, right on the brink of his departure from Carthage, that he is not leaving of his own accord. Here he seems to assume that she simply didn’t believe him first time round.

So now he uses emphatic words in a dramatic tricolon to promise that it really is true: ‘by the stars, by the gods and by whatever kind of faith exists within the depths of the earth’. But even if (on a charitable reading) Dido may now be better convinced of something she wasn’t before, what should this matter now? The deed has been done: Aeneas seems more concerned to justify and perhaps exculpate himself to Dido, than he does to empathise seriously with her feelings during her desperate last moments of life.

He then tells her that he cannot believe that such great grief was caused to her by his leaving Carthage. Clearly he was not paying sufficient attention during her extended emotional outpourings in Book 4. While speaking of her distress, Dido had pointedly referenced her own mortality, even claiming she was ‘going to die’ at one point (4.307). Has Aeneas simply forgotten this? Was he himself too distressed to register it when he heard it first time round? Or was he, rather, just insufficiently sympathetic to Dido’s pain properly to grasp it, being rather too focussed (for instance) on his own divinely ordained prerogatives to recognise it?

Toward the end of his speech, Aeneas issues a pair of direct commands, telling Dido to ‘stop’ and instructing her not to remove herself from his sight. Rather than telling her so abrasively what to do, could he not have implored her with soothing words, gently inviting her to share some words with him? The direct language Virgil employs helps, I think, to underscore the fact that this Aeneas is inescapably a forthright man of action who is used to commanding others with a strutting confidence. A less forthright (and more effective) approach would, perhaps, have involved a more delicate appeal to the sensibilities of his tragically jilted lover.

It is a commonplace to point out that Virgil’s Aeneas, as a prototypical Roman, simply tramples over the Carthaginian Dido in a way that represents the later Roman trampling of Carthage itself in the Punic Wars.* Aeneas stands for Rome, then, and Dido for Carthage. Many readers of Virgil sense that he is profoundly alert to the darkness and tragedy of military conquest and (specifically also of) Roman imperialism. In my opinion, Aeneas’ speech to Dido in the underworld sustains this reading. Through Aeneas, Virgil conveys something of the tactless bluster of the conquering Roman mentality, as it comes face to face with the tragic queen it has (seemingly unwittingly) brought to ruin.

TS Eliot found in Aeneas’ address of Dido in Book 6 something rather different from what I find here. For Eliot, Aeneas’ words disclose ‘civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience’.** Many other readers have found something similar, and some have admired Aeneas for his emotional articulacy in the passage, finding in him something approaching an exemplary figure who plainly and directly speaks his mind in a difficult interaction. My own reading challenges this view, which to me seems altogether too tidy and clipped. Even if Aeneas has to leave Carthage to fulfil his destiny, he still manages to get things wrong with Dido in the way he talks with her, I suggest.

Book 6 of the Aeneid, with its account of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, enjoyed an extended afterlife as an inspiration for medieval and early modern Christian imaginings of hell. Both Dante and Milton made features of Virgil’s account central to their own epic poems.

Virgil and Dante in Hell, by Delacroix

Contemporary readers are unlikely to look to Virgil as a resource when trying to picture any possible life after death. But Virgil’s characters, and his art as a storyteller, may still hold lessons not only for how to think about human relationships, as I have explored here, but (also, among other things) for contemporary attempts to do theology.

It is a truism of many such attempts in recent Christian writing that God is a God of love who can somehow be found through the experience of love in human relationships. As a rich resource for helping people to think through the meaning of sensitivity, sympathy and love in their relationships, Virgil’s writing could arguably be as instructive to this sort of theology now as it was in stimulating the religious thought and experience of medieval Christianity.

*For example, Bruno Currie, Epilogue, in Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil and the Epic Tradition, pp. 351-2.

**TS Eliot, What is a Classic? p. 20

The featured image is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder of Aeneas with the Sibyl in the underworld.

Bassani’s Etruscans

Language, writes Christopher Hitchens, is the magical key to prose, as much as to poetry. From the magic of the recent English translations of the Ferrara sequence of novels by Giorgio Bassani,* I can only assume that there was a great deal of enchantment in Bassani’s original Italian prose. Certainly, the haunting (haunted?) prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was first published in 1962, has stayed etched in my thoughts since the day I read it a couple of months ago.

Partly, I think, this is because it touches upon some of the ancient historical scenery around the city of Rome, including – for instance – the Etruscan archaeological remains at Cerveteri (remains about which I know very little). But the passage has mainly stayed with me for a different reason: the luminous way in which it combines topographical description with philosophical reflection about the historical longue durée.

By doing this, Bassani manages to place a subtle melancholy frame around the harrowing events he goes on to describe. He uses historical memory, then, as a way to achieve perspective and to infuse sadness – but also (beautifully) to demonstrate the continuing possibility of an innocent kind of hope, as we witness the exuberance of a young girl’s attempts to grapple with moral questions while engaging in serious historical thinking for what seems like the first time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows the fortunes of some young, upper crust members of the Jewish community of Ferrara in the late 1930s. The youngsters in question have a fondness for literature and discussion, for food, wine and tobacco, and for game after game of summer tennis (singles, doubles, whatever). Against this background, the marginalisation of the Jewish community that is going on in Ferrara over the course of this period, particularly as a consequence of Mussolini’s Racial Laws, gradually impinges in various ways on the characters.

Despite this descent, Bassani wants to show that the atmosphere among his characters of tender young love, carefree innocence, and coming of age discussion had not (yet) been destroyed during this time. He does this by revealing a tremendous level of poignancy, sensitivity and intimacy of feeling among his characters, the effect of which is to keep the reader focussed mainly on the contours of the personal relationships being described: the gathering political clouds which cast their increasingly ominous shadow over the ‘big picture’ landscape of the period are for their part kept mostly out of focus.

In the prologue of the story, Bassani’s characters experience the Italian landscape as a theatre of memory while out on a family day-trip. Driving toward the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri, not far from Rome, a discussion ensues among the passengers, the youngest of whom – Giannina – asks: ‘In the history book, the Etruscans are at the beginning, next to the Egyptians and the Jews. But Papa, who do you think were the oldest, the Etruscans or the Jews?’ A tricky question for poor Dad, who understandably deflects it – and fortunately for him an attractive double row of cypresses provides a welcome temporary distraction through the window.

Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri

The conversation lulls. Before long, though, another question breaks the silence: ‘Papa, why are old tombs less sad than new ones?’ This time Dad feels confident enough to offer what seems like a competent enough answer: ‘Well’, he says, ‘the recent dead are closer to us, and so it makes sense that we care more about them. The Etruscans, they’ve been dead such a long time – it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead’.

A pause. ‘But now you say that’, young Giannina gently responds, ‘it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’.

This remark, it turns out, sets the tone for the family’s whole visit to the Etruscan necropolis. It allows them to wonder with open minds not just about the Etruscans’ tombs and burial practices, but about the passage of time, and about the fate of this archaeological site which had survived ever since the time when ‘Etruria, with its coalition of free, aristocratic city-states, dominated almost the entire Italian peninsula’. In time, ‘new civilisations, cruder and less aristocratic, but also stronger and more warlike’ had held the field and the Etruscans slid into insignificance.

In the end, the narrator asks, what does this all matter? No direct answer to this question – which turns out to be rhetorical – is ventured. Instead, we are whisked away (not by car, but in our narrator’s imagination), from Etruscan Cerveteri, all the way back to his childhood Ferrara, to its grand old Jewish cemetery – and to the scenes of his youth which unfolded there.

Bassani’s juxtaposition of the Etruscan and Jewish burial grounds enables him to suggest an implicit if ever so slightly unnerving parallel between the two. Both burial grounds – if imaginatively engaged with – present a silent face of Italian history. And whereas his own memories in one of them are fresh, so that he can give voice to them, much in that old world has now gone.

In recalling memories of the recent Jewish past, even while doing so in glorious and complex richness and colour, it seems to make sense to this narrator to set them somewhat in context against the grand and merciless sweep of the peninsula’s wider history. In this way, Bassani hints with gentle knowing that he would like us to broach  the tragedy of the Jews of Ferrara in this story with the unforgiving laboratory of history as our backdrop.

  • The novels have been translated into English (beautifully) by Jamie McKendrick.